For Obama, Republicans, a Pause in Partisanship
There's a spring thaw of sorts under way in Congress, clearing the path for some big bills to pass before the fall, when the focus will shift to the 2014 elections for House and Senate seats.
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Both parties, driven by the goodwill that remains from their recent agreement to fund the government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, are in the mood for progress on other fronts.
The biggest surprise on tap: immigration reform. A sizable package will pass by the end of the year. It'll include beefed-up border patrols, more work visas for skilled and unskilled individuals and a path for legal residency for many millions of people who are in the U.S. illegally. That last provision was a long shot as recently as a few months ago.
Both parties stand to benefit over time. Democrats get to claim another big win for President Obama, allowing immigration to join health care as a cornerstone of his legislative legacy. Republicans gain a vital truce with Hispanic voters that may help them in future elections.
It won't be easy. Many tea partyers remain firmly opposed, especially to provisions that would lead to citizenship or legal residency for illegal immigrants. But they'll come up short of votes to block Democrats and mainstream Republicans, who see immigration reform as helping businesses to fill skilled positions that Americans aren't qualified for and unskilled jobs that Americans don't want.
That coalition — most Democrats and enough Republicans — will allow other legislation to advance, too:
--Streamlined job training. Nine different federal agencies spend about $18 billion a year on 47 training programs. The GOP-backed House has approved a bill to consolidate or eliminate 35 of the programs, and the Democratic-led Senate is sure to pass a similar measure, leaving relatively minor differences to settle before sending the legislation to the president.
--Gun control, but only around the edges. Forget a ban on so-called assault weapons or limits on how many rounds of ammunition a clip can hold. They're not included in the Senate bill and have absolutely no chance of getting through the House. Congress will OK school safety provisions and tougher penalties for illegal transfers of firearms. At the moment, a provision to expand background checks to private sales is in legislative limbo. The concept has broad public support — about 90% in some recent public opinion surveys — but the National Rifle Association is pushing back.
Other major bills will remain stalled, no matter how long the truce lasts.
There's no chance, for instance, that Republicans will repeal Obama's health care reform law. Some provisions are already in place. Others, including mandated medical insurance coverage, will kick in as scheduled on Jan. 1.
Some less partisan bills will languish as well, including cybersecurity protections and a U.S.-European Union trade pact. The trade talks will drag into 2014 or 2015 as the EU balks at genetically modified food, privacy provisions and other issues.
In terms of the big picture, the thaw is temporary, not the start of a new era in Washington. Bitter feuding remains the long-range forecast for the rest of Obama's time in the White House.